Like many empty nesters, Rachelle Roth wanted something smaller with fewer maintenance issues than the big house she had been living in for 25 years in Bethesda, Md.
“I was one person in a 3,400-square-foot house, and I was using about 200 square feet,” says Roth, 68, the owner of Urban Country, a decor shop in Bethesda.
Roth instructed her real estate agent to pinpoint her search to Somerset, an incorporated town in Chevy Chase, Md., that has its own mayor, town hall, swimming team, batting cage and official anthem. Roth’s agent found a unit in the Somerset House condominium complex — which technically is not in Somerset because of a de-annexation of the land that the condos stand on, but it was close enough.
“I like the community,” Roth says, “It’s on 19 acres with tennis courts, a gym, exercise classes, swimming pools — it feels like a resort to me.”
Roth walked through a first condo in the complex with her daughter Jillian, who nixed the deal before it got started. They looked at a second unit the day before they both were scheduled to fly to High Point, N.C., for a major interior design event. “We walked through and without any negotiation Jillian said, ‘We’ll take it,’ ” says Roth, who bought the unit for $1.75 million.
Mother and daughter agreed on a 1,900-square-foot, two-bedroom, three-bathroom unit with treetop views of the complex’s park-like setting. Although Roth was happy with the condo’s layout, her design-trained eye went to several details that needed to be dealt with, starting with the floors.
“The floors were dark, almost like a rosewood color. The previous owners had a lot of Oriental rugs, it was very formal,” says Roth, who considers herself informal and refers to her design aesthetic as “chic rustic.”
The floors are Brazilian cherry and most people are content with the wood’s natural shade, a dark, almost mahogany color. Roth had the floors in every room except the master bedroom, which was carpeted in an off-white wool blend, stripped and refinished in gray.
Roth was satisfied with the kitchen; the appliances were all fairly new and came from Miele, a high-quality brand. The countertops were quartzite, a very durable natural stone. The cabinetry was all custom-made by Ferris, a local shop based in the District and faced with a laminate material.
The previous owners had used the same cabinets as built-ins in the living room and on the far end of the dining room. Roth took a look and decided those had to go, along with the dining-room ceiling.
She designed a tray ceiling installation for the dining room that gave her enough headroom to install a chunky, crystal chandelier from one of her favorite vendors, Low Country Originals.
Pulling out the cabinets in the back of the dining room gave her enough space to bring in a 103-inch tin-topped table that would not fit in the elevator. “The table had to be hoisted up with a crane and moved in through the window,” she says.
In the living room, Roth put pen to paper and sketched how she wanted the new wall of cabinets that would surround the TV to look. Filing cabinets are hidden behind the cabinet doors. Window treatments in the home came from Restoration Hardware.
The foyer remained unchanged except for the light fixture and art that brings a touch of glamour to the space. The main fixtures in the powder room did not change but the surfaces did as Roth commissioned a faux painter to turn the walls into something more interesting and apply a textured surface to the vanity. Texture also shows up in nickel door handles that were also gussied up.
The guest bedroom went unchanged except for the wall colors that were turned into a dark gray — an unusual choice for a relatively small room. “Most people don’t do that,” says Roth. She also went custom for a window treatment in the guest suite using heavy fabric and oversized nail heads to help give the room a folksy feel.
Roth installed a set of doors in the hallway separating the master suite and had them custom-painted. The master bathroom was once again pretty much left alone except for a cove that was carved out of the wall over the tub.
In the master bedroom, Roth commissioned more original artwork in the form of hand-painting the soffit that rings the room. The bed and custom leather headboard came from the Old Hickory Furniture Co. Although the changes she made were mostly cosmetic, the price tag came in around $50,000.
For most people considering a condo renovation, resale is a key question, but it wasn’t really an issue for Roth and the choices she made. “I don’t ever think like that,” she says. Knowing what you want and knowing what you like in a condo renovation may still need to be approved by a hyper-local architectural review board, and the Somerset complex does have one.
Assuming your plans are approved — does it make sense to pour money into a building that you don’t actually own?
“You own a house in the sky,” says Theo Adamstein, a design expert and sales associate with TTR Sotheby’s International Realty, “and you should very much follow the same kinds of principles and approach as you would with a single-unit family dwelling.”
Common real estate wisdom dictates that the money rooms where you can expect to recoup any renovation costs are the kitchen and bathrooms. “That would apply to a typical home but especially in condos, where space is at a premium,” Adamstein says.
Doing construction in a condominium comes with its own set of unique challenges. “Noise is an issue,” Adamstein says, “as is the extra time it’s going to take just to get the materials up and down, especially if you’re living in a high-rise building.”
Roth’s subtle changes sailed through the approval process and lucky for her, the kitchen and bathrooms didn’t need much help. She didn’t have to deal with moving interior walls, which opens a whole new can of design worms.
“If interior walls are not load-bearing and are serving as divisional partitions, removing them is quite simple to do,” Adamstein says. “But if they are structural, it’s very unlikely that the plans will be approved.”
Investing in a condo renovation requires some thoughts about resale, as does any kind of real estate decision — assuming the homeowner may some day decide to sell out and move on.
“I would try to stay away from painting the walls with a color of the moment,” Adamstein says.
“Spa-like bathrooms and resort-like feels are very desirable,” he adds. “There is always an intangible effect that can be achieved if the design is strong and things like the lighting are well done. It’s not just what you spent on the construction, it’s the total effect beyond the sum of the parts.”